Tuesday, August 14, 2007

St. Nietzsche

[posted by Callimachus]

Roger Scruton, philosopher, points to a pair of unlikely archangels -- Nietzsche and Wagner.

Were they heroes of religion in the late 19th century? That struck me at first as odd, since they perhaps are better known as icons of the brutal Germanic secular religion of the 20th century. But you can't always blame a saint for how people behave later in the shade of his stained glass.

Odd, too, though, because Western faith seemed to be in full retreat through the whole 19th century, a tide ebbing under the sun of the Enlightenment and everything from Darwin and Lyell to Marx and Margaret Sanger. Titans of religion seemed to shrink as the century wore on -- from a Wilberforce to a Henry Ward Beecher: "The rattle of pebbles on the shore under the receding wave."

But that confuses "religion" with "conventional Christianity." And Scruton is seeing a bigger picture than that. To twist the Yeats image a bit, the receding tide exposed the primeval rock Christianity was built upon, and stripped off centuries of sand to show us not our specific Western religions, but the furious human urges that they were created to control. That was the eruption of the century between Wagner's and ours. If Scruton is right, there were warnings.

"[T]he intellectual enterprise" of Nietzsche and Wagner, he writes, "is that of showing the place of the sacred in human life, and the kind of knowledge and understanding that comes to us through the experience of sacred things."

He rightly notes that most of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, though they stripped the cloak of reason from belief, generally didn't try to flay the naked skin of it. Today, in media-molded America, we tend to experience only thuggish religion -- in which category I include secular fundamentalism and evangelical atheism. Such an approach blinds us to the Enlightenment, and to the American Founders who were its students. The notion and necessity of "civil religion" (Rousseau's term) is as central to them as is their loathing of pious superstitions and holy bigotry.

You cannot enlist a genuine Jefferson or a Rousseau in a modern U.S. political dispute between fundamentalist Christianity and aggressive secularism. You will never understand the role of a John Witherspoon in the Declaration of Independence. People who memorize the Voltaire quip about God often don't know the context of it: "I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God, because it means that I shall be cheated and robbed and cuckolded less often. ... If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."

George Washington, the practical plantation-manager among the learned Founders, often spoke about the political importance of religion. He did so in his "Farewell Address" (based on a draft by Hamilton), where he named it along with education and public credit as things productive of "public felicity." He was not talking about government-sponsored religion or the Pledge of Allegiance. He was talking about the people and their faiths.

Jefferson, the deist/Unitarian who so riled the pious Christians of his day, understood this, too. One Sunday morning, as president, he was walking to church service, prayer book in hand, when a friend accosted him and said, "You going to church Mr. J. You do not believe a word in it." [Americans were more familiar with their presidents then]. Jefferson replied, "no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning Sir."

(Of course, he never denied that he didn't believe a word of it.)

Jefferson, Rousseau, Voltaire, even Washington saw the situation more plainly than we do. We tend to try either to reassert the full societal grip of traditional Western religions or else sweep them away as the root of all modern evils. As though religion was the apple in the Garden instead of a set of imperfect channels for deep, dark human urges.

Religions are structures which draw destructive internal poisons and cure them, mostly, into constructive and calming rituals. Only a fool would think we can dispense with any such structure when Cambodia still reeks of corpses and we are only a few geological ticks out of the Ice Age.

The American Founders had the confidence of believing Western religion generally was on a firm foundation and sustained by the evidence of nature. Nietzsche and Wagner, by contrast, lived on the other side of that confidence, when the receding tide had eroded the Bible as science and perhaps even as history. They looked down instead on the bare foundation under the cathedral: the chthonic rituals of the ancients. Scruton writes:

The lesson that both thinkers took from the Greeks was that you could subtract the gods and their stories from Greek religion without taking away the most important thing. This thing had its primary reality not in myths or theology or doctrine, but in rituals, in moments that stand outside time, in which the loneliness and anxiety of the human individual is confronted and overcome, through immersion in the group—an idea that was later to be made foundational to the sociology of religion by Durkheim.

And so, though the fact is not much promoted, Scruton writes there are alternative to repressive Christians and politicized fundamentalists who are not relentless God-bashers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. There is, for instance, René Girard.

Thinkers like Dawkins and Hitchens conclude that religion is the cause of this violence and sexual obsession, and that the crimes committed in the name of religion can be seen as the definitive disproof of it. Not so, argues Girard. Religion is not the cause of violence but the solution to it. The violence comes from another source, and there is no society without it since it comes from the very attempt of human beings to live together. The same can be said of the religious obsession with sexuality: religion is not its cause, but an attempt to resolve it.